Fight or flight personality

My childhood friend recently had a rough emotional time, which caused him to feel fatigued for several months. His approach to this fatigue was completely different from mine at the time. He stayed calm, didn’t push himself, and slowly worked his way out of it again. Within four months, he was back on track, exercising, and working full-time again. I have, however, always been a stressed person. My childhood was stressful, and I thrived on stress. I loved thinking about theories to beat systems, and problem solving was what I was best at.

stress personality

How my severe symptoms started

When I developed symptoms, I was running a company, and I wanted to work hard on it for at least 3 more years before taking it slower. That would have earned me enough money to buy a house with a big garden and secure my financial future. I continued to work and initiated the push-and-crash cycle. In the first 4 months of my fatigue, I was incredibly sharp-minded; I felt like Sherlock Holmes, and I figured out lots of strategies to earn even more money. One day I would work many hours, and the next day I felt horrible, so I would plan all my strategies. At the end of that period, I noticed how I couldn’t relax anymore; my heartbeat was making me nervous, and I didn’t know how to relax anymore.

I started developing brain fog later, and at times I even couldn’t remember my name anymore. I was now so tired and wired that I needed a full day of rest after only half a day of work. I felt even more stressed by the symptoms and accepted some more big shows for me to star in. I pushed myself a little further, and I have never earned so much money as during the period I managed to work only 3 and a half days a week. I even moved to a nice apartment in Amsterdam.

However, the symptoms forced me to halt my work after 10 months, and it would take an additional 14 months for me to be able to stop my constant state of ‘fight or flight.’ In those 14 months, I had lost the ability to walk longer than 1 minute, sleep longer than 2 minutes at a time, speak sentences, or process anything that I heard or saw, such as listening to my mom. I was so exhausted that, in the end, I only had one option left: to finally learn how to calm down.

It was only when I began that process that I started making some progress in my health. With ups and downs, I have learned to calm down my nervous system, and I am still in the process of learning. Nowadays, when I feel tired, I can allow myself some high-quality rest, and when I really calm down and enter the rest and digest mode, I feel much better very fast. Sometimes I am exhausted, and only twenty minutes of high-quality rest rejuvenates me for the rest of the day. To start healing, I needed to change my ‘fight or flight’ personality.

Adrenaline and cortisol addiction

The nervous system has roughly three states: freeze, ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’. A balance between ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ is called homeostasis. You will have to learn to balance these two states again. The state of “freeze” is what causes emotional trauma. An extremely difficult moment can trap us in freeze mode. We won’t process the emotion anymore because the fight or flight response was not possible at that time. This means we don’t have a clear memory of what is haunting us. After many years, this traumatic experience may trigger the ‘fight or flight mode’ to escape again and again. Being stuck in ‘fight or flight mode’ will drain you and your adrenals.

You have become addicted to adrenaline and cortisol. And in the long run, this has lots of negative consequences. Stress is all you know, and even in your healing journey, you have most likely preferred a stressful approach. Stress has enabled you to accomplish remarkable feats in life. People with ME/CFS have the so-called type A personality; they are anything but lazy. You might keep clinging to your adrenaline and cortisol addiction, and your symptoms will stress you out even more. Stress has helped you a lot, but it will not heal you. Learning to calm down your nervous system, on the other hand, will boost your adrenals faster than you might expect. Often, people talk about good stress and bad stress. Especially people with illnesses like MS, ALS, and autoimmune conditions believe that there can be good stress, as they usually develop a stressful personality.

In his book ‘When the body says no’, Gabor Mate delves into this concept. His conclusion is that stress is neither good nor bad, but too much stress will make it harder for your nervous system to return to homeostasis or balance. The inability to return to homeostasis will make you ill eventually.

The endless journey back to yourself

If you apply the ‘rest and digest’ mode over a longer period of time, I am sure you will see results. You will have to abandon your restless mind and the ‘fight or flight’ personality. Leave behind the coping mechanisms that once served you and that you are still unaware of. Practice mindfulness, start meditation, quit your smartphone addiction, and calm down as best you can. If you think you are relaxed, I am sure you can eventually find an even calmer state in the future. Again and again, I have surprised myself with newly discovered depths of relaxation. I am pretty sure this pattern will continue, as will all the things that I talk about, like emotional healing, emotional awareness, body awareness, thought awareness, and mindfulness. What you are about to start is a journey that doesn’t have an end destination.